Murderers' Row

Until two years ago, Colorado juries weighed whether men deserved to die. Now judges decide their fate.

Dunlap wound up at the apartment of a friend, who helped him count the money. "I did it," Dunlap told his friend. "Chuck E Cheese." Next, Dunlap went to his girlfriend's home, where he called his mother. She said the police were there looking for him. He was arrested the next morning.

Denver was still reeling from the Chuck E Cheese murders when another killing shook the community.

Early on February 12, 1994, 25-year-old Rhonda Maloney was driving home from her job as a Central City cocktail waitress. Although the job paid well, Rhonda had plans that went beyond slinging drinks. She and her husband managed the apartment complex where they lived, and she hoped to go to school to learn to be a hairdresser. At some point, she wanted kids.

Pat Tuthill carried this picture of her daughter at the trial of Peyton's murderer, Donta Page.
Pat Tuthill carried this picture of her daughter at the trial of Peyton's murderer, Donta Page.


Read more Westword coverage of Colorado's death penalty in Penalty Zone

It had snowed that night, and Rhonda's car got stuck at the intersection of interstates 76 and 25. A man pulled over: Robert Harlan.

Driving home from work, Jaquie Creazzo had just exited eastbound I-76 for northbound I-25 when she noticed two cars parked on the highway. As she slowed to see if there was a problem, a woman emerged from the passenger side of one of the cars and frantically gestured for help. Creazzo stopped, and the woman, Rhonda Maloney, jumped in, saying she'd just been raped and that a man in the car had a gun and was going to kill her.

The pair took off with Harlan in pursuit. Pulling alongside, he fired several shots, striking Creazzo in the face, knee and spine. She lost control of the car -- on the lawn of a police station. As the car came to a stop, Harlan ran up with his gun, warned Creazzo that he'd kill her if she told anyone, then dragged Rhonda out and put her in his car.

Creazzo, who was left paralyzed from the waist down, was able to give police a description of her assailant. But it was Harlan's own family that found bloody evidence of his crime and turned him in three days later.

Rhonda Maloney's body was discovered four days after Harlan's arrest, near the intersection of Colfax Avenue and I-70. She'd been raped, beaten -- there were more than sixty injuries on her body, including a fractured skull and facial bones -- and then shot in the head.

In the wake of Dunlap's rampage, Coloradans grew more vocal in their support of the death penalty, and the legislature added multiple murders to the list of aggravating factors that prosecutors could use when arguing for the death penalty.

The debate intensified after Maloney's killing. Some arguments were emotional, focusing on society's right for retribution versus the moral admonition that killing does not stop killing.

Other arguments were economic. Proponents of the death penalty pointed out that keeping a prisoner alive for twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years of a life sentence would cost taxpayers more than $30,000 a year; opponents countered with the high cost of prosecuting and defending such cases, including the inevitable appeals. But the proponents fired right back, accusing the state public defender's office, which defended the vast majority of death-penalty cases, with having ulterior motives for keeping costs high. Not only was the office trying to expand its budget, and thus its clout, but it was also using economic coercion to convince the public to abandon the death penalty altogether. The public defender's office countered again, noting that prosecutors had the investigative and forensic services of law-enforcement agencies, including the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, on their side, as well as legal assistance from the Attorney General's Office.

And some law-enforcement officials complained that prosecutors weren't aggressive enough in pursuing the death penalty, claiming that the threat of capital punishment was being used as a chip to gain plea bargains. But if death sentences weren't carried out, they argued, the threat of capital punishment would not work as a deterrent to crime.

Two members of the Colorado Supreme Court, Justices Howard Kirshbaum and George Lohr, came under fire for saying that the death penalty was unconstitutional in voting to overturn the sentences of Frank Rodriguez, Gary Davis and Ronald White. Because theirs was the minority opinion, the sentences were upheld. But that didn't prevent former governor Dick Lamm, who'd appointed both Kirshbaum and Lohr to the court, from vowing to vote them out when they came up for retention in 1996 and 1998, respectively. "We ostensibly have the death penalty, but it's a cruel hoax," Lamm said. "It's a legislative illusion...Both of these judges disregard the vote of the people and are writing their own social policies."

State senator Bill Owens accused the Colorado Supreme Court of setting up a roadblock to executions. "The will of the people has been thwarted by the Colorado Supreme Court," he said.

By early 1995, the legislature was willing to let a judge decide the will of the people. State senator Ray Powers, a Republican from El Paso County, introduced a bill that would take the death-penalty decision away from jurors and instead give it to the judge who presided over the trial.

The Colorado Criminal Defense Bar and the Colorado Public Defender's Office, as well as traditional opponents of the death penalty, fought hard against the proposal. Prosecutors would find it easier to win death sentences from hard-hearted judges, they complained. If the death penalty was to be used at all, it should be because a jury of the defendant's peers had made the decision.

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